Read for Crimes of the Century, #1980book.
It is November 1327: the story unfolds in a magnificent abbey in the Italian mountains. Adso of Melk, a young Benedictine novice at a loose end during a period of political unrest, has been placed as assistant to William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission in Italy. Baskerville is an English Franciscan monk, a former inquisitor who has studied with Roger Bacon and William of Occam. The name is not the only thing Holmesian about the monk. He is also given to flamboyant (if dubiously deduced, or just plain lucky) displays of deduction.
‘it’s obvious you are hunting for Brunellus, the abbot’s favourite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes.’
Baskerville has come to the abbey to represent the theologians of the Emperor at a great debate to be held between envoys of the Pope (in 1327 based in Avignon rather than Rome) and the Franciscan order of friars. Part of his role is keeping the very precarious peace, and so as soon as he arrives the Abbot gives him a supplementary mission. A young monk named Adelmo of Otranto has been killed, and the culprit must be found before the envoys arrive.
And so William and Adso get under the skin of the abbey, meeting monks as diverse as the babbling friar Salvatore, the fanatical Ubertino, the defensive librarian Malachi, the Cadfael-like herbalist Severinus, the dogmatic Jorge of Burgos, and many more. Of course the abbey is a hotbed of theological intrigue and all sorts of sinful goings-on – plenty of motives to choose from, even before a second body turns up.
On top of this, the abbey has an immense and labyrinthine library full of secret texts in many languages, many of them heretical. Access to the books is strictly controlled by the librarian Malachi, but it soon becomes clear that one of them has somehow got out, and that someone is killing to get hold of it.
That’s the basics of what is a very complex novel, which is attempting to do much more than tell a crime story. The Guardian, for example, tells us that ‘Eco swells a gripping historical whodunnit with discourses on semiotics, faith and truth and a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy.’
‘Swells’ is the right word. 592 pages, full of this kind of thing:
‘Quintilian,’ my master interrupted, ‘says that laughter is to be repressed in the panegyric, for the sake of dignity, but it is to be encouraged in many other cases. Pliny the Younger wrote, “Sometimes I laugh, I jest, I play, because I am a man.”‘
‘They were pagans,’ Jorge replied. “The Rule forbids with stern words these trivialities: “Scurrilates vero vel verba otiosa et risum moventia aeterna clausura in omnibus locis damnamus, et ad talia eloquia discipulum aperire os non permittitur.”‘
Page after page of this. Grrr. Yet as I read, I found myself falling into the rhythm of the book a little more, swallowing vast swathes of text without stopping to become annoyed with Eco. I even enjoyed myself – there are some funny bits of debate, and a moving little romance between the inexperienced Adso and a village girl.
But did it really go in? Most of it I couldn’t claim to really understand, or, if I understood for a few moments whilst I was reading, I’d have trouble explaining it to somebody now. In my wilful ignorance I didn’t bother to look up the 99% of the Latin I couldn’t work out myself. And there is a lot of Latin. All I can say I gained is a flavour of the fervid religious debates of the period, and I’m sure I could have got this more easily and quickly elsewhere, the Wikipedia article on the Franciscans, for example.
Does all the talk make for ‘a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy‘? Maybe, although just of what the monks were thinking. I don’t believe it’s really possible to authentically capture the medieval mindset. We’re just not ill-informed enough, sick enough, cold enough or hungry enough to think medieval. And to be honest, Eco’s monks are bores. Very clever bores, bores who burnt people for being a different flavour of bore, but just bores. Eco could have got that across in far fewer words.
Is there ‘a gripping historical whodunnit‘ hiding in here? Stripped of all the science stuff, it reminded me of a Lovejoy book. Hunt for a macguffin, suspects with shifting loyalties, ending in a life-threatening climax. Even an unlikely seduction.
There is clearly lots in The Name of the Rose for a scholar to get their teeth into, but it’s been put in there on purpose, and then hammered home with 200 pages nobody needs to read. Once you are into the flow, it is readable, but I can’t promise you’ll think it worth the investment in time.
Postmodern Mystery: Yet our author would not be Umberto Eco, if the book wasn’t full of intertextual, intratextual, and countertextual twists. For Eco, another turn of the screw means another book within a book, and Eco gives us several additional turns here. Not only does the story involve texts, as well as texts that relate to other texts; not only do manuscripts figure as possible clues, motives and weapons in The Name of the Rose; but even the narrative itself is reportedly drawn from a book the author found in 1968 that contained a 14th century text from a Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk.
Girl With Her Head in a Book: This is one of the most complex books that I have ever read. The first hundred or so pages were apparently deliberately written to seem opaque to the casual reader. If you’re going to read The Name of the Rose then you need to be committed. The unfortunate thing is that books like these are tricky for me during term time, but the summer holiday really helped in that regard. To be honest, I liked having the chance to read a book that actually presented a certain intellectual challenge – it’s nice when an author actually has expectations of the reader.
Final destination: Back to the library
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.